Saturday, February 23, 2008

History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce

No I hate Marx, on several levels (ah I'm kidding Karlly-boy, I love you, I just hate your murderous ideology), but I got to admit he occasionally, when he wants to, he can turn a nice phrase (of course when he doesn't want to, you can end up with something like Das Kapital, which 99% of the world can bear reading, and 1% of the world pretends to read).

But whenever you think of Napoleon III, nothing seems to fit better. Yet, that typical assessment misses how important Napoleon III really was to world history.

Just on the bare bones:
He brought down the Second Republic of France, furthering the French tradition of chronically unstable and periodically radical governments.

He reignited foreign adventurism by helping to push forward the Crimean War. While this war can be looked from a purely Russia-Ottoman standpoint, the entire 19th century and most of the 18th century were constant Russia-Ottoman conflicts, what made this one unique was the French and British military intervention (as opposed to later diplomatic interventions), which owes itself in a great deal to Napoleon III.

He furthered the idea of colonialism for prestige and honor + the idea of colonial paternalism in his policies in Algeria, Vietnam, and the Middle East.

He brought European politics back to the Americas with his intervention in Mexico.

He helped destablize the European power-balance by encouraging the emergence of Italy and generally backing nationalism movements and lobbying for a first place of France beyond the Concert of Europe.

He was perhaps the first of the modernizing conservatives. Essentially radical in their embrace of modernity and their embrace of nationalism, essentially conservative in their views on rights and on personal values. The basic tenant of figures like Napoleon III, who would haunt the late 19th century as well as the whole of the 20th century, was that the nation must be made great and strong, while the people must be kept orderly and moral.

In Napoleon III, there is the model for more than 100 years of brutal modernizers who did it all in the name of the nation. In that company, he does seem like a little bit of a farce. But he created a modern but unstable France, he helped create a nationalistic but unstable Europe, and he helped create a world being consumed by the need for glory, honor, and a place in the sun.

So in the end, history repeated itself twice as tragedy.

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